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Lack of illness prevention system forces us to keep immune system strong on our own

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Grapefruit half. Photo: Push Doctor/Flickr

This is part two of a two-part series in which journalist Ed Finn offers up advice for leading a long and healthy life. Read part one here.

Canadians are living longer, with current life expectancy now averaging 82. The most recent Statistics Canada data I can find reports that 749,000 Canadians have lived into their 80s, and 280,000 into their 90s, with women significantly outnumbering men in both those categories. (Of the 280,000 nonagenarians, more than 200,000 were female.)

But StatsCan can't measure the well-being of these senior citizens. One of its studies found that the health of most Canadians starts to deteriorate at the age of 69, but the extent and cause of that decline varies considerably at the individual level and is not measureable. Obviously, it depends on the different internal and external determinants of health that affect each of us, and whether we can exert any control over them.

But even when we eat well, exercise, and do our best to avoid illness, we can still be incapacitated by one of Shakespeare's "thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to." In either case, the "golden years" turn out to be not even bronze.

We've all heard the old cliché that "there's only one thing worse than growing old, and that's not growing old." But there's another eventuality that is arguably worse: growing old and sick.

That's the sad fate of far too many of our senior citizens. So many that our nursing homes, long-term and palliative care institutions can't accommodate all of them. Thousands are bed-ridden or otherwise incapacitated, many in their own homes or the homes of their children.

I cite this unpleasant reality, not as an inevitable consequence of aging (it isn't, by any means), but because I believe that most of the ills associated with old age are preventable. Well, not indefinitely, of course -- we all have to die of something, sometime -- but for much longer than the age at which many of our elderly now succumb.

This is not a new concept. Some geriatric specialists and health reformers have been arguing for years that the priority should be to prevent ailments rather than trying to alleviate them after they occur. Such a switch would not only improve and prolong life spans, but also save many billions of dollars now spent on remedial surgery, drugs, hospital stays, and home care.

Left on our own

In the absence of such an emphasis on prevention, we are basically left to fend for ourselves. Many people, however, are not free to choose the kind of wholesome lifestyle they would prefer. They can eschew bad habits, but if they're poor, not well-educated, unemployed, or mired in menial and low-paying jobs, with arduous family responsibilities, their quality of life is largely beyond their control.

They need help from local, provincial, and federal governments, but such caring and progressive politicians seem to be in short supply in Canada. When it comes to promoting good health -- apart from efforts to discourage tobacco use and drunk driving -- most politicians are pretty much content to let Canadians look after themselves -- at least until they get sick enough to require the services of doctors, hospitals, druggists, and old-age homes.  

Staying well on our own is an onerous responsibility. Even those among us who are financially well-off are not invulnerable to the dangers of an increasingly contaminated environment. Much of our water and soil is polluted, and the air we breathe is laden with toxins that are inimical to our health. They are so pervasive and are carried so widely by air and water and in the food we eat that, short of living in a glass bubble, it is impossible to avoid them.

Our powerful personal defence

Fortunately, nature endowed each of us at birth with a tremendously powerful defence mechanism -- the immune system -- which in theory (and for some of us in practice) can repel or destroy even the most dangerous microbial attackers.

A progressive U.S. physician, Dr. Ronald Glasser, wrote a book many years ago titled The Body is the Hero, in which he argued that, for most forms of illness, all a doctor can do for a patient is help the immune system do its job. And that job is to prevent the patient from getting sick in the first place.

Think of the immune system as an engine that, like all engines, operates most effectively when provided with the best fuel and maintenance. There was a time when it was possible for someone to do that simply by eating the right foods -- foods rich in all the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that the body and its immune system require.

But that was a time when such natural organic foods were widely available, when so many people were not crowded into cities and workplaces conducive to the spread of disease, and when the air, water and soil were not contaminated. Today, much of our food is grown in denatured soil drenched with toxic pesticides and herbicides, then "processed" in ways that leach out much of its natural goodness.

And this has happened while our bodies are exposed to thousands of harmful chemicals, smog, and pollution -- and thus more urgently in need of a strong immune system than ever before.

The traditional medical system has been scoffing at this alleged need for a stronger immune system for a long time, even ridiculing Nobel Prize winner Dr. Linus Pauling when he advocated taking daily megadoses of Vitamin C to complement the deficiency of that essential vitamin. But many recent studies have confirmed the therapeutic benefits of this and other vitamin and mineral supplements, especially those with antioxidants that help the immune system stave off carcinogens.

I started a supplementary vitamin/mineral/herbal regime about 60 years ago. It may be just a coincidence that I've never been seriously ill since then -- and I know I'm tempting fate by even alluding to my ongoing wellness! -- but I'm convinced I would be far less healthy today if I hadn't.

Some skeptics would claim it was be an example of the "placebo effect" where candy pills have a health-inducing effect because the patient believes they do -- but I don't think so. Neither does my family doctor, who, after finishing my annual checkups, always says with a feigned sigh, "Sorry, Ed, but I still can't find anything wrong with you." The time will ultimately come, of course -- mortality being unavoidable -- when he will have a much less positive prognosis for me, but, until then, I continue to enjoy my life a day at a time.

For millions of other seniors, however, the older they get, the more their health deteriorates. They become victims of a pseudo health-care system that perversely is fixated on "treating" sickness and searching for elusive cures instead of helping people stay well. So doctors, pharmaceutical companies, hospital administrators, nursing home owners, medical equipment makers -- even the scores of public charitable organizations -- all operate on the assumption that "health care" begins only after people get sick. Whether they admit it or not, the grim fact is that they all have a vested interest in sickness, not health.

This is not to denigrate the dedication and integrity of the professionals who staff our health-care system. In the toxic-stew environment we're now immersed in, and in the absence of preventive and protective measures, their services are indispensable.

But surely it would be far better to have a system that puts a priority on helping people avoid illness. It would be far less costly in the long run to eliminate hunger, poverty, and the other social causes of ill health than to try to cope medically and belatedly with their terribly debilitating effects.

Unfortunately, such a beneficial reversal of our profit-driven system of "health care" will never happen as long as the lack of preventive measures benefits the powerful corporations and organizations that run it.

We are therefore left to do the best we can, as individuals, to maintain our own health and keep our immune systems as strong as possible. That includes the ingestion of nutritious unprocessed food, supplemented daily by at least a good multivitamin and mineral capsule. 

In the absence of collective efforts to support a preventive approach to health care, our immune systems need all the help we can give them on our own.

Ed Finn grew up in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, where he worked as a printer’s apprentice, reporter, columnist, and editor of that city’s daily newspaper, the Western Star. His career as a journalist included 14 years as a labour relations columnist for the Toronto Star. He was part of the world of politics between 1959 and 1962, serving as the first provincial leader of the NDP in Newfoundland. He worked closely with Tommy Douglas for some years and helped defend and promote medicare legislation in Saskatchewan.

Photo: Push Doctor/Flickr

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